callie zucker

The Blue Album

I’ve always been terribly skilled at being emotional; whether this is due to personal nature or stereotypical feminine melancholia, I’m never sure. Whatever the underlying reason for the rather harsh vicissitudes of my emotions, I’ve nursed my fragility with the help of a number of sensory aids. I tend to be a fan of the overly-something: coffee so hot my tongue never learns its lesson, sweaters so large they’re assumed to be my father’s, music so loud the elderly frown. I eschew middle grounds in general, opting instead for either too much or too little; Goldilocks always seemed like a finicky bitch to me.

So it makes sense, in the illogical maze of my mind, that I do things like sit in the storage closet of my apartment with the lights off listening to Joni Mitchell’s “River” as loudly as possible through my headphones or listen to “California” twenty times in a row when I finally leave the discomfiting dustpile that is Nevada into the Golden State on my drive home from school. I like to joke that you can tell from everything about me that I love Joni Mitchell, especially the “Blue” album. I sometimes feel that I’m a caricature of myself. The girl raised by lesbian parents in the Bay Area who studies creative writing at a liberal arts college loves Joni Mitchell? Yeah, makes sense.


I love love and I hate longevity. I find that anything that endures in my life only serves to make it feel shorter. If I spend my afternoons doing the exact same thing for a month, I won’t be able to distinguish them from one another and, in a flash, my month turns into a single afternoon. If happiness means being content, and being content means falling into a routine, then I worry that being happy means living a shorter-perceived life. But is that better than an excruciatingly long one marked by suffering and unhappiness?

Maybe it is; a literally long life has never particularly appealed to me, and that’s not just me languoring in melancholia but a genuine worry of leaving the party long after it was time to go. I suppose it’s another practice in extremes; I deal in bursts and flashes and flares. It might be better, easier to be slowly effusive, venting out energy in steady streams. But I’m not well-versed in matters of permanence, so for now (and maybe forever), I erupt.

I also love to cry. I try to do it as often as I can, about anything I can, and sometimes about nothing at all. During the aggregate 10 months or so that I was on Prozac, I didn’t cry at all. In my mind, I paired this with my relative inability to orgasm as well, and shelved it with the other reasons I hated Prozac (the primary reason being that it drove me into such insanity that I often worried on my walks home that the squirrels were filming me through cameras in their eyes).

During these months of drought-eyes and dread, I often turned to music to either take the place of or encourage tears. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” has featured prominently in my life since I discovered it wedged between a Dixie Chicks and Indigo Girls CD on my mother’s shelf in early middle school. It became a fixture in high school, when I would lie on my bed listening to it, belly swollen with lovesickness. I remember listening to it on repeat freshman year of high school while reading “Love In The Time of Cholera” and feeling so filled with an inimitable something, relating so painfully to Florentino’s flowery sickness. Maybe it was the link between the flowers Florentino eats and the wine Joni could drink in “A Case of You,” the chronicling of that desire to entirely consume someone else, or at least the essence of them. It wasn’t then (and isn’t now) that I couldn’t get enough, but the risk that enough might cross into too much; that I might drink a case of someone and not stay on my feet.


At 14, I had yet to truly love and be loved by anyone, including myself, but I had already created a horrible habit I maintain to this day: I fall in love 20 times a day. Of course, my loving lacks the proper timing of courtship and understanding and intimacy, but it’s still love to me. It’s horribly treacly and starry-eyed of me, but I was raised and have remained a romantic despite myself. I’ve noticed that the people I know, especially women, tend to turn away from notions of romanticism as we often conflate it with vulnerability. Women are so often painted as crazy in love, chaining themselves to the first person they fall for, that it’s easier to offer a colder shoulder in order to not give the impression of hysteria or neediness.

I find this is a problem in hookup culture as well; people are loath to confess true feelings or say how they feel in fear of rejection, in fear of being vulnerable. I do this too, often burying my emotions so deep that even I’m unsure of what I really feel. To be vulnerable is to be hurt, to be rejected, to unearth the fear that you’re unworthy of whatever it is you’re searching for in the other person. Although I might not have in the past, I’m starting to think that the pain might be worth it. Bear all and bare all, even and especially when it’s easier to not. Like in “Little Green,” where Joni writes about the baby she gave up for adoption when she was 21. The bittersweet of the song sounds how other lives might have felt, sounds like placeless nostalgia … if Joni can write “Little Green,” I can weather any storm of emotion that might barrage me. I can be thankful, in the end, for the vulnerability. I have already learned that sometimes, there will be sorrow.


We shy away from vulnerability in order to keep from getting hurt by and hurting others, which I suppose is a well-intentioned action, but it means living at 50 percent saturation. There’s a Fernando Pessoa quote that I often think about, from “The Book of Disquiet.”


“To feel everything in every way; to be able to think with the emotions and feel with the mind … in short, to use all sensations but only on the inside, peeling them all down to God and then wrapping everything up again and putting it back in the shop window.”


This, to me, is the art of being delicate. To be delicate is to break every day, break yourself and let yourself be broken, to truly feel everything. In my mind, Joni Mitchell is a Pessoan woman like myself. Maybe I’m projecting, but the words “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad” in “River” make it hard to feel like Joni and I aren’t the same in some deep, permeating, internal way.

Sometimes I worry this will destroy us. Joni has Morgellons, a disease in which the individual believes there are fibers under, in, or emerging from the skin paired with a crawling sensation, and often sores from scratching. Medically, it's considered a psychological offshoot of delusional parasitosis. This makes me scared of my strong connection to Joni; I see much of myself in her delusions. Aside from recurring nightmares where Play-Doh pushes out of my pores in strings like in one of those Crazy Cuts kits, I already feel myself falling fully into other delusions. Delusional parasitosis often fully develops or emerges after age 40, and more often in women, but anyone who knows me well knows I often joke about how I am perpetually convinced I am infected with parasites; I get tests to check for parasites at least once a year and sometimes worry I have parasites that have evolved to be undetectable. On one level, I see that I’m being ridiculous and overly-anxious, but on a deeper, more internal level, I go to bed noting every place my skin twitches and scratch away any sort of bug bite I get, mentally terrorized by the parasites I know can’t exist, but do nonetheless.

Logically, Joni Mitchell’s Morgellons and my parasite fixation can’t have anything to do with our vulnerability. But it feels that way to me, sometimes—like our emotional rawness has allowed spidery darkness to creep in and hijack our brains into believing things that can’t be true, into hurting us. I know I denounced emotional middle grounds, but I find myself desperately searching for one to settle into safely, a gray area to wrap myself in so I can coast by comfortably in life. Unfortunately for me, and maybe for Joni, those gray areas don’t come easily.


Is this what our vulnerability has done to us? Have we peeled down our sensations so many times that we can’t put them back in the shop window? Maybe the feel-everything in me has ruined me, in a sense. Maybe it’s unsustainable. But in “All I Want,” Joni says she wants to belong to the living, and at the end of the day, I think I do too. My life often feels like an exercise in staring directly at the sun as it rises. The sunlight hurts my eyes, but I continue to look because I know it’s also beautiful. The things that we love will very likely destroy us one day, but that doesn’t mean we should close our eyes. Even if life is one extended risk assessment, I can’t think of a risk not worth taking or a death I wouldn’t die to live my life in full color.  


Letter From The Editor: Bad

Dear Reader,

I’ve got good news and bad news, everyone. Following convention, the bad news first: the world we live in seems to be a never-ending cycle of bad events followed by more bad events. Every headline appears to be pulled from the pages of a particularly cruel child’s Mad Libs book, whether it’s a capital-B bad one, like impending mass extinctions, or a headline more quietly bad, like “Lonely Library Dog Was So Sad When Nobody Came To Read To Him.” From the unrelenting threat of gun violence to wildfires devouring our homes to voter suppression to breakups to burning your morning coffee, the universe seems to be tending towards particular shitty, neverending entropy.

The good news? It’s not all bad. In all truth, I’ve never been one to look on the bright side; it hurts my eyes. So, to break up the bad, some good news: Australia is well on its way to eradicating cervical cancer by 2028! Mondelez International (the company behind Oreos and other snacks) divested from palm oil corporations that contribute to deforestation. In the past 17 years, new cases of HIV dropped by 36 percent, while Antiretroviral Therapy saved nearly 11.4 million lives since 2000. This was also a month of historic firsts: Laguna Pueblo woman Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation became the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, 29 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman to serve in Congress, and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar became the two first Muslim women to be elected.

So while there is some good left, this issue focuses on every breed of bad: Take Anna Hill’s musical exploration of the dichotomies within country music’s bad boy, Johnny Cash, or Lindsey Aronson’s fascinating photo essay on Colorado Springs’ history as a healing haven for tuberculosis patients. There’s the bad that gets better, like the state of being and transformation of identity that Nathan Goodman explores in his article, and the bad that still endures in unexpected ways, like the strict Catholic sexual norms that Emma Olsen explores in her piece. While all of the articles in this issue grapple with some sort of badness, they also unearth the silver linings that are sometimes hard to find.

It’s easy to split up the world into the good and the bad; it’s simpler, cleaner, and more reassuring than assessing the middle grounds that exist in everything going on around us. But nothing is quite that black and white. Take this Floridian headline from a few weeks ago: “Florida man breaks into restaurant, strips naked, eats noodles, plays bongos.” On one hand, public indecency. But on the other, free concert. Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. But we do spend a lot of time parsing the relative goodness or badness of certain events or people and arguing for varying levels of moral absolutism. We crave the clarity of the good/ bad dichotomy in order to definitively know on which side of the board we fall. When it comes down to it, I think we’re all secretly worrying the same thing: Am I a bad person?

And if you’re reading this, let me tell you—in all likelihood, if you’re asking the question, you aren’t. If you think that’s bull, if you’re bullying yourself for mistakes you’ve made in the past or that you’re inevitably going to make in the future, then I’ve got good news for you: There’s always time to make things better, always a way to forgive yourself and others and reconcile the good and bad parts of you. And for what it’s worth, I think you’re a good person.

All the best, but more importantly, all the worst,

Callie Zucker (and the rest of Cipher staff)

Of Meat and Men

If you’re wondering if we gender food, google “man eating.” Cool, dudes shoving burgers down their throats. Now google “woman eating.” Salads abound. From these stock images, one would think that women pretty much eat only cubes of fruit and iceberg lettuce while laughing into their forks.

On one level, these search results might seem more indicative of female diet culture than of men’s diets; we’re more likely to view a diet of solely salad as a trendy fad than we would a diet that largely consists of meat (looking at you, keto fiends). That’s because we already assume that eating massive quantities of meat is the norm—the average American ate 198 pounds of meat in the year 2014 compared to the world average of about 91 pounds. We are a meat-centric society and, despite the growing number of very vocal plant-based folk, meat consumption is soaring (annual meat consumption per person in the U.S. was predicted to be to 222 pounds for the year of 2018). America is increasingly meat-obsessed, and when you take a closer look at our country (the “steak of the union,” if I may) it’s hardly surprising. Whether it’s Hungry-Man Frozen Dinners TV commercials or the not so wholesome not so family farm Perdue chickens, America loves meat. So why aren’t both women and men on Google Images chowing down steaks? Why is meat so connected to masculinity?

We could, of course, approach it from a naïve “first humans” perspective: men are hunters, women are gatherers. But even if that perspective is anthropologically accurate, it’s strange that the association has lived on considering the only spears most men wield now are the sticks inside their corn dogs. According to a study done by the Vegan Society, 63 percent of vegans identify as female, while 37 percent identify as male. This divide is slightly more even but still apparent in vegetarians, with 41 percent of vegetarians in the U.S. identifying as male. Men aren’t hunting animals as a means to survive anymore, but there still seems to be an inextricable link between meat consumption and manhood.

We seem to think that meat reinforces this idealized conception of manhood, that we are the number one predator. But ironically, in today's corporate capitalist world, this sentiment has only allowed men to be targeted by meat corporations. Take Burger King’s “I Am Man” commercial from 2007: a man leaves his date at a restaurant because he doesn’t want to “settle for chick food.” The commercial ends with the statement “Eat like a man, man.” Basically, the message is that maleness is predicated on consuming a meat manufactured by a corporation (Burger King). In the same way that beauty narratives tell women they need x product to be truly beautiful, our society has posed meat consumption as something integral to manhood. It also sets up yet another way to pit women against one another, as some women use misogynist food narratives to their favor by asserting they’re not like “typical women.” The girl who gets a burger on the first date is a cool, one-of-the-guys kind of girl, while the girl who eats a salad is overly concerned with her figure or too girly. If there’s anything more American than meat, it’s misogyny!

Thinking of meat as synonymous with strength isn’t solely capitalism’s fault, but colonialism as well (although those are both just dressed-up words for the exploitation of poor people. You say tomato, I say subjugation of millions). In postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi’s book Affective Communities, she highlights how the meat-eating English used meat as a colonialist means of control over India; meat was seen as food of the strong and “intelligent” colonizer, the diet of “civilized” English society. She argues that the English used meat consumption as an “ideological tactic” against the more plant-based Indians: if meat meant strength and superiority, a vegetarian diet meant inferiority, illness, and weakness.

I wanted to see what masculine people had to say about meat. Did they notice the emphasis on meat eating in America or was I driving myself crazy over nothing? To George, who I knew in high school and struggle to call a man rather than a boy, “meat means protein and gains that’s about all that comes to mind.” From what I gathered during our brief conversation, George seems to work out a lot now, which was why he described himself as “particularly masculine.” He and his frat brothers apparently all eat a lot of meat and work out together; to them, the protein they get from meat translates directly into masculine “gains” and enormous pulsing man muscles. Meat means gains, gains mean masculinity, so by transitive property of frattiness, meat means ... masculinity, I guess.

Although George’s brief, no-nonsense answers were helpful, I was able to pull a lot more out of Joe, a fellow CC student. He pointed out that “when male-identifying people grow up, we learn that eating meat makes you strong and tough, and we’re eating all these mostly female animals.” This was another aspect of gendering meat I hadn’t even considered... There isn’t exactly a huge number of bulls or roosters on farms, and they don’t produce milk or eggs. Why? (Upon further investigation, I learned that bull meat apparently grows tougher than cow meat, hence the popularity of veal, which is made from infant bulls.) Joe also noticed a lot of coded meat messages growing up, like the “associations you see on TV and commercials with meat and ‘manliness’ and being a ‘big tough man’” or how “eating my first Big Mac definitely felt like a weird male rite of passage.”

Joe and another former high school classmate of mine, Patrick*, noticed the ways in which meat-related slang is tied to masculinity. There are a lot of typically masculine meat-related idioms: two people in a fight have “beef;” if you “beat your meat” you’re masturbating a penis; if you get wild you’re “going ham;” the list goes on and on. Joe and Patrick recalled a few more good ones, like “sausage fest” and “beef up.” Joe got on a roll once he started, sending me multiple messages:

1:39 PM: "choke the chicken" as a euphemism for masturbation
3:22 PM: I've also heard a woman’s butt referred to as "booty meat"
9:35 PM: I just remembered the term "meathead," I hear that a lot to refer to a muscular male who is unintelligent.

So yeah, there’s a lot of slang, although Patrick told me, “I've always thought that meat as a euphemism for dick was kind of unsettling, because meat is something that gets bitten off, chewed, and digested, and I want exactly none of that associated with my dick.” I thought that was pretty fair.


But I was unsettled by something else: when we associate meat with the penis and muscle, where does that leave vegetarian and vegan men? Are they stripped of “manhood” because of their dietary choices? Can you be manly without meat?

There’s increasing evidence that you can. Notable manly vegans include famed quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, “Jackass” stuntman Steve-O, and NFL star Tony Gonzalez. If male athletes are beefing up sans beef, then how are they asserting their masculinity outside of our consumer emphasis that meat is male? I asked professional vegan bodybuilder, health coach, and master fitness trainer Korin Sutton. Korin isn’t just fit; he’s built. A recent photo he posted on Instagram claims he has five percent body fat, and that’s not hard to believe at all. He’s a typical Adonis, the last person you’d want to start a fight with in a bar. An ex-military man, he turned vegan when he realized “that all the medals that I earned in the military didn’t serve any justice in what my heart was desiring.” That desire, in Korin’s eyes, was saving animal lives through a vegan diet. He believes that men eat more meat than women only because they’re raised to believe that men eat more meat, thus creating a cycle in which men eat meat to uphold a norm. Since going vegan, Sutton says he’s “glad that my mindset has changed and realized that food has no gender roles.”

Sutton is stereotypically masculine, but, overall, the men I talked to fell in varying places along the scale of masculinity. There’s George with his gains and frat brothers, Joe with his boyish ebullience and love of music, and Patrick, whose most memorable attribute during high school was the trench coat and fez he wore every day, and his assertion that he was building an authentic World War II enigma machine. You don’t have to be a typical “man” to fall prey to our society’s fixation on meat. Whether you’re a little masculine or a lot masculine, you’re still subject to masculinity standards.

But where does this association become fuel for toxic masculinity and male aggression? Considering that very few people kill the food they eat, men are more likely hunting for Tyson coupons than hunting for wooly mammoths. But all it takes is a glance at the evening news to confirm that male aggression is alive and well. To be clear, I’m not blaming meat for this; male violence has been excused and upheld by our society for hundreds of years, and it’s not as if plant-based men are removed from that structure. Male aggression isn’t based on meat but dominance. Meat consumption is also based on that same notion of dominance. That they sometimes intersect is hardly surprising; after all, society has long been obsessed with both the superiority of men over women and humans over other animals.

How do we begin to break down this view? Is it, as some vegetarians might suggest, by not eating meat at all? Is the problem meat itself, or how we eat it? I promised myself to steer clear of vegan moralizing in this article, so I’m not going to yell about switching to a plant-based diet. But I also wonder if we changed the way we consume meat, then some of those man/beast dichotomies would start to fall apart. If we don’t think about the way food informs our decisions and attitudes, then we fail to notice how we perpetuate toxic ideals in our culture.

Can we even really separate our food from the society that produces it? For a country so obsessed with eating food, we don’t seem to actually think about food that much. We’re constantly inundated with food advertisements and Tasty videos and pictures on Instagram, but we fail to seriously acknowledge issues like the obesity epidemic or cardiac arrest-related deaths or eating disorders. We cling to labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” without learning what they really mean, or fixate on “clean” or “cruelty-free” eating.

The ethical food movement may urge us to stop eating so much meat, but it is still wrapped up in the stereotypes that characterize the way we masculinize meat. Labelling some foods as “clean” implies others are “dirty,” which is not only classist and shamey, but dangerous. Once we use our food as a way to inform and fill out our identities, it becomes a fixed element in our lifestyle. Treating foods as central to our identity is fine and healthy when it comes to cultural foods and ethnic culinary traditions, but using meat-eating to boost our identity in terms of fitness, gender, or sexuality by over-emphasizing it as a necessary staple is the antithesis of sustainability. Not only have we made it normal to eat way too much meat, and emasculated men who refuse to do so, but we’ve also tossed out the human habit of an incredibly varied and ever-changing diet that our bodies need to thrive.

We’ve twisted one of the most basic parts of humanity into a way we abuse ourselves and others. If we can’t examine what sustains us physically, how the hell are we supposed to examine what sustains us mentally, emotionally, or spiritually? Taking a closer look at not just what we eat, but how we eat and why we eat what we do is crucial to living that Socratic examined life. So how do we convince people to pay attention to what they eat without conflating certain foods with certain characteristics in a way that upholds the same toxic standards that pit people against each other and the planet?

I don’t know, but it’s certainly something to chew on.


Heat Issue | November 2018

It Cut Both Ways

Hey Callie, I’m here to talk to you about my penis.”

Out of context, this message sounds like the usual dick-centric message a woman might receive—it’s like a sales pitch, a virtual version of a solicitor at my door. Or maybe it’s a cringingly straightforward version of the classic “what r u doing 2nite” text. But thankfully, this time, no one was trying to sell me on their penis.

This message actually originated from a conversation with a female friend of mine. We’d been discussing penis appearance and circumcision when we realized that we knew very, very little about it. How common was it? Were there any proven benefits? Where does all the foreskin go? What even is a penis? In search of answers, I reached out to the Facebook community to ask for penis anecdotes and opinions surrounding circumcision. The post was basically an inverted version of that Jonah Hill scene in “Accepted” where he’s yelling “Ask me about my weiner!” I was yelling into the cybervoid for people to let me ask them about their weiners. As it turns out, people really want to talk about dicks because, believe it or not, no one ever actually asks.


Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that penises should be talked about more. We do seem to talk about them all the time, whether it’s a joke, a comment about the size of the president’s peen or some other masculinity-threatening insult. But the truth is, the United States has a penis problem—or rather, a penis discourse problem.

Most of us think about the penis a whole lot, whether it’s because we want dick or because we have a dick. But we don’t really think about the foreskin. That is, until we we have children ourselves. “Congratulations on your new baby! Now do you want to cut off its dick skin or not?”

There is a war being waged over the foreskin—the war on circumcision, as some see it. Circumcision has been an unquestioned norm in the United States for a long time. Only in the past couple decades have people started resisting the practice. Anti-circ and pro-circ folks are, shall we say, going head-to-head over circumcision: its benefits, frequency, ethicality and so on. People have a lot of cock-eyed opinions, and the debate is surprisingly complex. Thinking about circumcision as a decision of whether to snip is just the tip ... of the iceberg.


Whose opposed to circumcision deem it an act of violence. Circumcision of infants, they argue, is nonconsensual and cruel, as many infants are not given an anaesthetic for the operation. The leading group against circumcision, Intact America, considers circumcision akin to female genital mutilation. Groups like Intact America, which describe themselves in their mission statement as “passionate, professional, principled, and uncompromising,” hold the opinion that circumcision is an unnecessary and invasive surgery. They go as far as to support an all-out ban on circumcision. 

Reading Intact America’s website, I realized I didn’t actually know exactly what happens during a circumcision. In order to fully understand, I spent an hour watching different instructional videos on how to circumcise both adult and infantile penises. My personal favorite circumcision video was the one featuring “Blue Danube” by Richard Strauss. (Every good circumcision is accompanied by a full orchestra.) 

Now that I’m basically an expert, I can clear up some medical and anatomical confusion. A circumcision happens like this: first, you cut open the foreskin on the upper side of the penis with scissors, then slit the underside, peel it like a banana, and cut it off. Often, metal instruments are used to hold the foreskin open in order to ease the cutting process. The procedure sounds incredibly painful, though I can’t imagine a surgery that would sound pleasant when described in graphic detail. 

The World Health Organization estimates that about 30 percent of the world’s penis-owning population is circumcised. Most of this population is comprised of Muslim penis owners living in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—circumcision, or khitan in Arabic, is mentioned in the hadith and the sunnah. Circumcision is also mandated by most Jewish communities, a tradition which stems from a passage in Genesis 17. God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.” God then goes on to explain that if Abraham doesn’t keep his people circumcised, their souls will be compromised and cut off from God. From what I gathered, this is where religiously-motivated circumcision began. But, in the New Testament, Paul basically argues that because Jesus was circumcised, no one else has to be. Jesus’ foreskin died for our sins, so circumcision fell out of Christian tradition.

In other predominately Christian countries, like France and England, non-religious circumcision will soon have disappeared. But circumcision rates in the United States are still high (around 80 percent of men aged 14 to 59 are circumcised) despite the fact that the majority of the United States is Christian. So how did we come to live in a foreskin-less nation?

There’s no one clear answer. It seems, however, that if God wasn’t the one telling you to circumcise your child, it was your box of cornflakes. Cereal namesake John Harvey Kellogg popularized the belief that circumcision was an effective method of stopping masturbation and keeping a person clean and chaste. That anti-masturbation, pro-hygiene argument became especially popular after the First World War, when the military was forced to discharge more than ten thousand men due to STDs. The proposed solution? Circumcision. 

Starting in the Second World War, soldiers were required to be circumcised before being deployed (this is all, of course, based on very little scientific evidence suggesting it would help prevent STDs). This meant a lot of grown-ass men were circumcised (without anesthetic) and were told that it was for their health. So later on, when given the decision to circumcise their own children, many couples decided it was better to do it early, when the memory wouldn’t be so painful (medical opinion at the time held that babies didn’t feel pain). During the postwar baby boom when hospital-births were the new standard, circumcision became the doctor-recommended option for parents. A slew of medical reports by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book “Baby and Child Care” remains one of the best-selling books of all time, claimed that circumcision was cleaner and safer for the child. (Spock, as it happens, rescinded these statements near the end of his life.) By the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of babies were circumcised. Couples in the 1960s saw their friends throwing their children off the proverbial dick-snipping bridge, and they decided to follow suit.

By the ‘60s, the argument for circumcision seemed to be that circumcision was cleaner, safer, and prettier than the alternative. The hygiene argument for circumcision has never really made sense to me. I understand it’s another part of your body you have to clean, but to recommend cutting it off so you don’t have to clean it? That’s kind of like saying you should cut off your hands since, if you don’t have hands, you don’t need to wash them after you go to the bathroom. 

The arguments of safety and STD transmission are contentious ones; look it up and you’ll find a hundred studies that say circumcision prevents STDs and another hundred that say it doesn’t. Neither argument has been proven. And the argument that circumcision makes penises more attractive is just a positive feedback loop of negative thought to justify a popular practice against its challengers. Apparently, if all scientific justification for something fails, the public resorts to “it just looks better that way.”


The online discussion about circumcision makes the isssue seem very black and white, so I wanted to know if people actually think about their penises the way the internet makes it seem they do. It was awesome to see the number of people willing to talk to me openly about their penises. People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out—from old camp counselors to boys from my middle school. My friends from Colorado College messaged me; even my uncle sent me his opinions. I actually got catfished by a pretend med school student using a picture of Chelsea soccer player Eden Hazard to slide me fake medical advice about circumcision, which was cool in an inconvenient way. 

Most of the responses came from circumcised people, which is unsurprising given the high rate of circumcision in the United States. All of the responses I got were from penis-owning people who identified as men. In general, most were pretty nonchalant about circumcision—definitely not as heated as those vocal on the internet.

 Some of them hadn’t thought about it at all before, while others had several paragraphs of thoughts on the matter. Their opinions on the debate ended up boiling down to a few main contentions also made by circumcision scholars: religion, consent, cleanliness, pleasure, and appearance. (I granted all interviewees anonymity in the interest of getting frank, honest answers. Completely randomly generated names are used in lieu of given names.)

The question of consent and circumcision is at the heart of the debate. A lot of the responses I received were from Jewish men who had no issue with their parents making the decision to circumcise them. On the other hand, non-Jewish Richard (uncircumcised), found it an “imposition of religion.” He said it was a “consent violation if the person is too young to make an informed decision for themselves … and frankly abusive.” One of the few women who reached out for an interview said it was “pretty barbaric … it should be a choice that a penis owner makes when they’re old enough to do so, rather than a choice that’s made for them when they’re babies.” 

But others argued that as kids we had to do a whole bunch of shit we didn’t want to anyway. One guy called the consent argument “complete bullshit. I didn’t consent to if I could or could not go to preschool, eat veggies, grow up in USA, etc. The list is endless.” He reasoned that “it’s not like children can consent to orthodontic surgery (which is often cosmetic).” Those making the violation-of-consent argument were typically uncircumcised people, while circumcised folk tended to have a more relaxed attitude about it. Both sides make good points: I didn’t consent to my parents giving me horrible haircuts as a child, true, but my hair grew out, whereas growing foreskin back is much harder. But also, if a parent is following what their religion has dictated for years, what’s common with other new parents, or what they’re told is best for their child, then I’m not quite sure it’s abusive, either. Additionally, banning circumcision (like Intact America suggests) means preventing Jewish and Muslim practices and could lead to amateur circumcisions performed out of adherence to religion, which carry serious medical risks.

Pleasure is the one thing I found circumcised guys get bummed out about, as there are a good deal of rumors that having that ultrasensitive foreskin makes for better sex. The public seems to have  accepted this as fact, although there isn’t much actual scientific evidence because sexual pleasure is hard to quantify. As circumcised Paul put it, “I want a penis that is as sensitive as can be, because … sex is nice.” A lot of guys I talked to who had been circumcised for non-religious reasons found it pretty illogical—they said they definitely wouldn’t have been circumcised if they had been given the choice.

On the other hand, there’s the cleanliness argument. One girl I interviewed felt better knowing that guys she was hooking up with were circumcised because she found it cleaner. Several fraternity brothers made it clear to me that they thought uncircumcised penises were gross, but quickly backtracked to make it clear that they had never thought about any penises, ever. The cleanliness argument has spurred some pretty demoralizing conceptions of uncircumcised penises as “gross” or “dirty.” A friend of mine told me she had considered uncircumcised penises ugly and dirty before she saw one and realized they were just regular old penises with more skin. That experience wasn’t unique to her, either. Colorado College junior Richard II told me a story about his friend whose girlfriend wouldn’t go down on him specifically because he was uncircumcised, and several guys I attempted to interview for this article actually told me they thought uncircumcised penises were “disgusting.” It turns out that a lot of people get squeamish about the uncircumcised penis. 

There’s a lot of danger in the “ew” argument. Penises have become a sort of bodily indicator of power in addition to sexuality. Maybe the rhetoric surrounding penises is negative because they’re sometimes associated with male domination and toxic masculinity. With the recent increase in body positivity surrounding vaginas and their beauty, I’ve found that no one really ever calls penises beautiful or strong or anything like that. And I’m not hopping on some men’s rights bullshit train, but I do wonder how penis owners feel about having the general narrative remain, “All penises are gross, and some are even grosser, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

 I tried asking people I interviewed about penile body positivity. Some, like John and Peter, felt that this lack of conversation about the penis and the body was detrimental. According to uncircumcised John, the inclusion of penises in discussions of body positivity could “delegitimize the stigma and shame of differently shaped and sized penises” and “get men talking about their feelings around their bodies in general.” This body talk is important, too, because almost every guy I interviewed pointed out how they almost never see other people’s dicks. Most guys noted that they only see other penises in porn, and that, as a result, porn is what shaped their idea of how the “correct” penis looks and acts. On the other hand, Richard II pointed out that because of the penis’ association with sexuality and male power, any body positivity movement around the penis would end up feeling like a movement for male power.


We see how body shaming and lack of representation of bodies affects people all the time, but we seem to ignore the penis in a very counterintuitive way. We don’t talk about penis appearance because we don’t think that cisgender men belong to a faction of people that needs more attention or support. But this leads to internalized insecurities that can very quickly turn into aggression. If someone is ashamed of their penis, they might associate sex with embarrassment, and a supposed indicator of “power” might come to indicate their inadequacy. It’s easy to see, then, how guys can end up combating feelings of powerlessness with violence. The circumcision debate thus only exacerbates this issue—an incredibly vulnerable part of someone’s body is considered unattractive because of circumstances (and circumcisions) completely outside of their control.

Aggressively masculinizing the penis through our rhetoric has implications other than cis male shame, though. It further ostracizes trans women and perpetuates the dangerous idea that trans women are still male. We paint the penis as this solely sexual, male body part and it seems as if the only place we’re talking about the penis outside of sexuality is in the circumcision of infants, where it suddenly seems like the penis belongs to the argument and not the owner. The only arena where the penis is desexualized is one where it’s denigrated. To me, we seem to be focusing on the penis in all the wrong ways, and our rhetoric is creating a culture that kills people. Toxic masculinity thrives in a phallocentric society. Insulting the penis in any way (even by proxy, as in rejection of sexual advancement) becomes a dangerous action for all women but especially for trans women, whose penises are used as proof of their “fake” womanhood. This myth of the penis as inherently and aggressively male contributes to the transphobia of men who have killed at least six trans women in 2018 as of February 23, 2018 in the United States alone. 

So where do we go from here? One possible solution would be to start viewing and thinking of penises in a non-sexual way. Our country is weird as hell about nudity no matter how you cut it, but penises are often shut out of the whole “nudity isn’t inherently sexual” narrative. Of course, there are reasons for this—say, indecent exposure, which is something that crosses the line over body positivity into harassment. Though we maybe shouldn’t advocate for a universal “free the penis” movement, we should definitely rethink the strange place we’ve put the penis in our thoughts about the body.


In terms of being pro- or anti-circumcision, I am very much on the dick fence, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that when we take as rigid a stance on the circumcision debate as people tend to, we shame one kind of penis or another. Calling uncircumcised penises dirty and unsafe isn’t exactly uplifting, and calling circumcised penises mutilated (as groups like Intact America do) doesn’t do wonders for self-esteem either. Surely, there’s a way to have this discussion that doesn’t denigrate all penises and perpetuate a culture of body shame around a vulnerable body part. 

Peter seemed to nail this topic on the head (the metaphorical one, not the penis one, because ouch): “Masculinity standards are not talked about enough. Penises are a large part of being masculine and being comfortable in your own skin. Guys grow up watching porn and there are discrepancies of expectation and reality. I think that being able to love what you have, and understanding that what you see in the fiction world of porn can create a feeling of inadequacy. I think that this feeling leads to anger that targets women and other guys. So creating a culture of penis positivity is important.” 

We are so obsessed with the penis as an emblem of male sexuality that we don’t even know where would we be if we could break down these notions about the penis. The entire conversation just clearly indicates how strangely our culture thinks about bodies and sex and how they relate. It’s completely nonsensical to think the uncircumcised penis looks weird. If we think that, it’s because we were taught to. 

So, America, I think it’s time to quit dicking around about the dick. 

Come as You Are


I am in seventh grade. My new LG Touch lights up with a message from my latest crush, Brendan Supple. We are playing the “question game,” which is basically preteen sexting. It’s intense in that “haha, and then what” kind of way.

do u masterbate? Brendan texts me. He’s the pinnacle of eloquence. 

no haha :) I type back in a panic.

I’m not one to lie, but at twelve I’m wracked with guilt over masturbation. It would be at least four years before I realized that other girls masturbate, too. But by twelve, it was already common knowledge that boys masturbated. A lot. 

We talk about guys masturbating all the time. There are so many nicknames for the act of cisgender men masturbating that basically anything you say could be a euphemism for a dude jacking off. The equation for creating an alternative saying for “masturbate” is verb-ing the noun: Beating the meat. Tugging the slug. Pulling the rope. 

Some of them sound incredibly violent and not at all like something I would want to do to my hypothetical penis: bleeding the weed? Flogging the egg man? (I sincerely hope no one has ever, ever, said this in reference to masturbation.) The thing is, there are hundreds of generally accepted ways to say you’re going to flog your egg man. Fixation on cis-male sexual pleasure has been a constant in the human sexual landscape for the past, oh, forever. I flounder to find a good way to refer to masturbating if you have a vagina, other than saying “masturbate.” (I have yet to find a single person who can say “flick the bean” without cringing or laughing.) This lack of colloquialisms for female masturbation is about more than a lack of creativity. It’s indicative of the disparity in attention to male and female pleasure. 

Curiously enough, a fix of sorts did come about, but only when doctors started diagnosing women with “hysteria” when their husbands couldn’t make them come. The “percussor,” more popularly known as the vibrator, bearer of multiple orgasms, was initially invented to aid doctors in administering “pelvic massages” to their patients in order to calm hysteria and cure “frigid woman syndrome,” (also known as, “you-can’t-come-and-it’s-you-fault syndrome”). That’s right, making your girl come was a duty delegated to medical professionals in the late nineteenth century. Percussors disappeared off of the popular market somewhere around the 1920s, returning to the black hole of female sexuality. (Freud literally called female sexuality the “dark continent” of psychology. But let’s be honest, Freud couldn’t make a girl come.) 

But if doctors aren’t making people come any more, then who is? Because, according to over thirty studies regarding the female orgasm, women aren’t coming during sex. Dame Products CEO Alexandra Fine explains that women are four times more likely than men to refer to heterosexual intercourse as “not pleasurable at all.” This phenomenon is referred to as the “pleasure gap” in sex. In one survey of individuals ages 18-65, 62 percent of women reported regularly orgasming from sex, compared to 85 percent of men. 

Studies aside, this is something I witness and experience all the time. The whole idea of “faking it” is preposterous when you actually think about it: women are more concerned with men’s egos than their actual sexual pleasure. When I asked a female CC student why she faked orgasms, her response was that she “got bored and wanted it to be over.” She told me, “‘Jackhammering’ only feels good for one person.” If your sexual style is compared to a power tool, it’s a safe bet that you’re not making anyone come. 

Another female student noted, “Everyone acts as if the path to pleasure is the same for men and women, when it’s drastically different.” Why are women so reluctant to instruct men how to make them come? Why are men so offended by women not coming when it’s pretty unequivocally their fault? Even as I ask myself these questions, I know the answer: Throughout our entire lives, women are taught to protect fragile masculinity at all costs. Because if we don’t, the price we pay could literally be deadly. How many stories have I read in the past month about women being beaten to death or stabbed or shot for rejecting a man’s advances? I recall the high school-era drama surrounding “blue balls,” a phenomenon experienced and whined about by men, often used to coerce women into sexual acts they weren’t comfortable with. 

I was curious as to what cisgender men had to say about the pleasure gap. Were they aware of it? Did they give a shit? Naturally, I decided to ask the men I’ve had sex with. The interviews were a lot like the sex I’ve had—nothing extraordinary, but they got the job done. 

One man I interviewed fumbled uncomfortably when I asked him if he thought he made girls come, saying, “I don’t know, I have no idea. I feel like, honestly, maybe? I mean, people make different movements and noises and whatnot? And afterwards I’m not gonna like, I mean I don’t…ask.” I watched the realization settle into his face. He continued, “maybe that’s really… rude of me?” This Don John Doe wasn’t aware of the pleasure gap but was able to guess at it quickly, comparing it to the “wage gap, in that men orgasm way more often than women do.” What frustrated me about talking to these guys is that even if they were aware, or they acknowledged their own problems, they just didn’t seem to care that much. It’s almost as if making someone with a vagina orgasm has become an exceptional accomplishment—those who can do it are special and rare, and those who can’t are just fine, too. So the burden of both people’s orgasms falls on the femme. 

How, then, do we reclaim pleasure in sex? Some sex shop curators, such as former dominatrix Amy Boyajian of Wild Flower, a sex shop in New York, are working to reform the discourse around sex. Most importantly, Boyajian is trying to change the popular view of sex toys. Re-enter the great “percussor” of the 19th century! Boyajian wants to resist the idea of “sex toys and the stores that [sell] them…as lurid and sinister places that only creepy men in trench coats [visit].” 

She says that with the rise of feminist sex stores, which base their ideology around education and pleasure, the market of the sex store shopper expanded to include women and gay people. She’s now working to include trans and nonbinary people as well. Wild Flower’s products are not categorized not by gender, like many sex toys are, but by the body parts to which the sex toy applies—vaginas, penises, butts (oh my!), as well as categories for BDSM and nipple play. The store, along with her popular Instagram page, @wildflowersex, features numerous educational articles and videos with titles like “Oral Tips With A Giant Vulva” (if you want to know what an enormous paper mache vulva looks like, then this one is right up your alley!) and “What’s The Deal With Cock Rings?” There’s an entire page dedicated to the varying purposes of crystal dildos and yoni eggs (dumbbells for your vagina). 

Boyajian’s unthreatening mannerisms and no-nonsense approach to sex education puts her miles away from mainstream sex education in this country, which is more reproductive education than anything else. We’re taught more about fallopian tubes than about consent. I knew the function of the vas deferens before I knew the word “orgasm.” How is anyone supposed to figure out what they like if they learn about pleasure through the lens of salacity or obscenity? Pleasure is not obscene—it’s essential.

When I asked Boyajian what she thought about the pleasure gap and why it exists, she brought up the important effect that societal norms have on sex and sex toys today: “Sex toys are seen as competition to partners in the bedroom, when they are simply aids to women who find it hard to orgasm via penetrative sex. Any woman who talks about sexuality is deemed a slut. Sexual wellness is bigger than penetrative sex, like period sex and vaginal health, but these are too ‘icky’ to be part of the mainstream narrative.” 

There are dangerous ramifications of the common notion that some aspects of sex are icky while others are acceptable. More movies are rated NC-17 for cunnilingus scenes than for scenes with graphic portrayals of sexual assault. Sexual violence is deemed safer for audiences than seeing a vagina being pleasured. No wonder my best friend in high school confided to me that she had never been eaten out “because vaginas are so gross and I don’t want to anyone to see that.” Clearly, there’s something horrifically wrong with the narrative surrounding pleasure. It’s a sobering reality, but not an immutable one.

If we’re going to talk about women’s pleasure during sex, then women’s comfort also has to be discussed. If your male partner can’t say the word “tampon” without lowering his voice or giggling—if your period is denigrated as something “gross” or “unspeakable”—then what the hell is that dude doing near your vagina anyway? Sexual pleasure comes with feeling comfortable that your body, no matter what it looks like or how it functions, is not wrong. Amy’s advice for anyone struggling to feel comfortable in their sexuality is to, “Create an ongoing romance with yourself, explore your body, and get to know what feels good via masturbation. Treat yourself to a vibrator. Make your pleasure a priority…Explore your fantasies and do it a way that is non-judgmental. Be gentle and kind to yourself.” 

I swear to God, I’m going to get “Be gentle and kind to yourself” tattooed on my ass as a reminder because I think it’s the single greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. But it’s also important to be gentle and kind to others. Whether you’re having Sting-esque tantric sex for hours with your fiancée or a Craiglist-organized orgy, the golden rule still applies. Every Sunday I hear (okay, overhear) a story about a sexual encounter. The story is always centered around the fact that it happened, not about whether it was enjoyed. We talk about sex as if pleasure were inherently part of the act, which only serves to push the pleasure gap under the rug. And as I’ve encountered countless times, femmes often recount their sexual exploits with a level of bashfulness that just isn’t present in male discussion. One of these days I’m going to stand on a table in the dining hall and just scream, “It is okay to come!” 

Discovering what pleases you isn’t exactly a linear journey. What’s often forgotten in conversations about pleasure is that pleasure is different for everyone. Don’t let shame or discomfort dictate your sex life, and don’t feel pressured to feel good all the time. It’s okay not to know what you like, and it’s also okay to take your time to figure it out. The most important thing is to feel comfortable, whether that’s figuring out sex for yourself (or with yourself) or initiating a potentially uncomfortable conversation with your partner. Set your vibrator on high (or low, or whatever setting you damn well please) and get to it. Don’t settle for anything less than shaky legs, flushed cheeks, and arched backs. Men? It’s a clit, not the Strait of Magellan. I’ve always hated that romantic aphorism about having to “love yourself before anyone else can love you,” but I’ve realized it has a granule of truth.

In a recent sexual encounter, my partner asked me if I had come. Resisting the familiar urge to lie, I told him I hadn’t. In the anxious theatre that is my mind, I imagined the various ways this guy would be angry at me, ranked by levels of violence. I remembered fights with my high school boyfriend, who told me that I should see a doctor if I couldn’t come because he had done everything that he could. I remembered the first time I had sex in college, lying in my bed like shit, maybe that really is all there is. I remembered my first multiple orgasm experience and how elated I was that I wasn’t broken in some deep down, physical way. I nervously awaited his angry answer.

Grabbing the soft pouch of my tummy, he told me, “Damn, I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.”

And with those gentle and kind words, we went to sleep and I waited for that promised “next time” to come.